I have fallen in love with a birch tree. Tomorrow my husband will remove it, a killing he presented as a fait accompli last weekend after plying me with cocktails. “We can plant a new one,” he said. “That’s some consolation.”
But it isn’t. My birch is already mature, tri-trunked, its papery zebra bark unfurling. Two of its three stems arc elegantly over our driveway. On the right their tips sidle up to a hemlock as if tapping its shoulder, completing the curve. Thin branches float from each trunk, creating a fluttery leaf curtain of silver-green which turns ochre when summer ends. This tree announces our house, revealing the front door only after passage under its canopy.
Last May, when we were new to this house, my husband and I traveled to New York to see my ninety-year-old father. I hadn’t wanted to leave yet. I instigated this move to the small Michigan town where we had previously vacationed, a place we associated with relaxation and reprieve from marital storms. We were still learning the quirks of our new home and our own quirks within it.
But I also longed to see my father, the garrulous anchor of my family, always my defender. We chatted and laughed with him about books, politics, and other family members. We showed him photos of our new home and the surrounding landscape of white pines and birches. He promised to visit. As we departed for the airport he decided to take a short stroll, a doctor-recommended activity to build his endurance.
I watched him from across West End Avenue, hidden behind a parked car. At fifty-five I felt like a little girl again, playing hide and seek, recalling that in my boisterous family, my success in that game—as in so many other things—meant being the quiet one who waits. Alone on the sidewalk, leaning into his walker, my father stooped lower and lower in increasingly futile efforts to propel his legs. The curve of his spine eventually bowed his body from his hips to the walker’s seat. Then his legs simply stopped working.
I rushed across the street with an excuse: a newsy tidbit I had forgotten to mention. We maneuvered him into his building, telephoned his doctor. His funeral was three weeks later.
That summer I remembered my father’s spine whenever I passed through the arc of my splendid, difficult birch. Its curtain of branches began to brush the top of the FedEx delivery truck. “If the branches get any longer I’ll have to park on the road,” the FedEx guy said. He didn’t sound as if he would mind. With my husband traveling weekly for business, it is service providers who populate my days.
Several times in summer the FedEx guy delivered wine for weekend gatherings, idling his truck under the birch. One warm Wednesday afternoon two packages arrived: not only wine, but also the first formal letter about my father’s estate. I invited the FedEx guy in for a glass of the wine. I would have followed through, just for the companionship. He shrugged it off, kindly never mentioning it again. For months afterwards, he brought other packages from New York, probate documents in thin cardboard envelopes that required a signature; boxes of my father’s possessions that didn’t.
Six months after my father died, our first major snowstorm blew in. The white howled off of Lake Michigan, falling all night. In the morning a birch trunk, burdened with snow, bent even lower, scraping the ground beneath the hemlock. My husband was not there to see the beauty of this new gateway. I texted him a picture, intending that he exclaim over its loveliness. He did not; instead, he decided to remove the birch.
That winter even I had to admit that the birch’s beauty was inconvenient. I could not get my car out of the driveway with the trunks bowing so low, nor could the plough get in. I ventured out in early morning with a coat over my pajamas, tucking the pant legs into felt-lined duck boots. I banged on the birch trunks with a shovel, willing them to release their snow loads. With each crack of the shovel snow slammed onto my hair and face and down my boots. The effort was tiring. Eventually the trunks rose, just enough to let the plough pass. When the snow finally melted for good, the birch resumed its normal position. Like the aftermath of an argument, it was easy to forget what trouble it had been.
European white clump birches live fifty years at most. I do not know the age of my birch tree; the curve of its backbone suggests it is not young. If we leave it alone, only knocking the snow off after every storm, someday it will bend so low it cracks. I would gladly wait until that day, tending my tree in winter, trimming its drapery of leaves in summer.
But my husband is better at letting go of things. He is irritated, for example, by the boxes my brother has sent from my father’s apartment, two towers stacked in our basement. I cannot unpack more than one box at a time. Each box announces my father, and I cannot yet sort the contents into what I will hold and what I will toss. I am too much of a keeper, my husband says. Sometimes when he says this, I think of him as Exhibit A.
I am learning that even keepers cannot save everything we love exactly as it is. Other forms must suffice for the keeping. An artist in this town turns wood. I will have her make me a bowl from a piece of my tree, one with a gentle curve. It will remind me of the arc of the birch, and the arc of other things I know I cannot keep.
© Mary Hannah Terzino
[Mary Hannah Terzino was a finalist for the Forge Fellowship. Read Mary’s interview]